I have learned over the years that connections with West Point classmates have become increasingly important – in good times and bad.
Classmate and fellow Field Artilleryman Dan Horne and I shared a flight to Vietnam … and then back again 1 year later. We met in the Atlanta Airport in early March 1970, as we bid a tearful good-bye to our beautiful new Army brides. We then flew to McGuire Air Force Base, NJ, where we caught a military-contracted commercial flight to Vietnam, landing near Saigon at Bien Hoa Airfield many sleepless hours later. What a surreal experience to walk off a commercial airliner into the middle of a war.
During initial inprocessing at the 90th Replacement Battalion in Long Binh Post that first day in country, I was informed by the assignment clerk that I was to report to the Americal (23d Infantry) Division in Chu Lai, in the I Corps sector as soon as possible.
When I protested, showing him my written orders for 2d Battalion/19th Field Artillery in the 1st Cavalry Division (I had been carrying these orders since spring 1969, having since completed West Point, FA Officer Basic School and Ranger School) he told me the Americal had lost several field artillery forward observers (FO) and needed replacements right away. So I was told to get on the next flight north to the Division Headquarters in Chu Lai. Dan had orders for the 1st Cav as well (1st Battalion/77th Field Artillery), but found himself with similar revised orders to the Americal Division and once again we shared a flight, but this one without the commercial perks! We both were reminded of a simple truth about Army life: you go where you are needed at the time … regardless of previous orders.
Dan and I were together when we reported to the Division Headquarters and started our week of orientation training, consisting of enemy tactics and techniques, patrolling techniques, security procedures, division policies, current enemy situation briefings, and getting accustomed to the temperature and humidity!
Near week’s end, we were given a couple hours of free time, so Dan and I walked to the beach on the South China Sea, fairly close to our billets, and we were joined by several others from our course. As we admired the beautiful and inviting sea waters, we all decided to cool off by swimming, not appreciating the treacherous riptide and undertow until we were well off the beach in deep water and being strongly pulled further out to sea! We realized then why signs on the beach warned of dangerous swimming conditions and no lifeguard. One guy in our group was even further out than the two of us, going under and yelling for help, so we both started swimming to him. Dan reached him first, got his head above water, calmed him, and started the long swim back as I stayed close to help if needed. Those Plebe swimming classes paid off that day. Although we were both exhausted, we felt we had done the right thing and had made a difference at least in the life of one fellow soldier.
You can imagine our surprise the next morning when we were told to report to our company commander to be severely reprimanded for swimming in dangerous waters without permission, using bad judgment, etc. Among other colorfully worded comments, he said he could end our careers with a written letter in our files if he chose to do so. Perhaps the shortage of FOs saved us, because he decided to let us go to our new units that morning with only the tongue lashing. Another lesson re-learned: no good deed goes unpunished. Dan and I said our farewells as we headed off to our respective assignments, hoping to see each other on the other side of our twelve-month deployment.
As the year-long combat tour drew to a close, I was amazed that we met again at Cam Ranh Bay, out-processing and waiting for the same “freedom bird” flight back to the States, together again! Dan, however, was more shocked than I when he saw me, saying, “I thought you had been killed!” I assured him I was still alive, not quick enough to remember Mark Twain’s clever line, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Our last night in country, the specter of death visited again, as we were awakened by a 122mm rocket attack on the airfield, impacting near our barracks. By then, our “gallows humor” allowed us to laugh it off, remember other earlier close calls, and remind each other that somebody didn’t want us to leave alive!
Postscript: Our wives, having connected as we departed for a place half-a-world away, stayed in contact during that year of separation, since they lived within a few miles of each other. I was blessed, and I am very grateful today, to have shared with classmate “LT Dan” these “bookend” experiences of Vietnam.